Football: Highbury will not forgive Anelka's avarice

The pounds 22m Lazio deal may be off, but the unsettled striker has no future with Arsenal. By Guy Hodgson
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THERE ARE any number of ways to waste pounds 22m but very few of us would choose having to endure Nicolas Anelka's whining and inflated self- opinion while we did it. The fact that Lazio, Juventus or a combination of them were willing to pay that much for him surely proves, if proof was needed, that football is losing touch with sanity and its audience.

The Italians were saved from their folly yesterday when Arsenal withdrew the 20-year-old striker from the transfer list, but the name Anelka is unlikely to disappear. Unfortunately for those who are thoroughly sick of this spoilt young man (and Arsene Wenger would be listed among them), there is a long way to travel with this issue yet.

Anelka, who anxiously wants to leave Highbury, might wish to withdraw his labour to force Arsenal's hand, or he might go to court to get a release from his four-year contract. Even if he does neither it seems unlikely he will be seen again in the red shirt with white sleeves in which he has made his reputation.

The other players are unlikely to embrace a hostile presence in the dressing- room and the supporters will not welcome someone who is living out their dream and has spent the last two years moaning about it. He is a young man with an instinctive talent and a scorer's knack, but he carries discontent in his kit-bag. Arsenal's followers will not have appreciated Anelka's comments about London or the accusations that players with more heroic reputations, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, refuse to pass to him, but they were prepared to put up with him while he continued to perform. Even a bucketful of goals would not erase dragging the club through a summer of bickering, however.

He is seen by fans as a brat with too much money and ego. "If he comes back he will be lynched," one supporter said on Radio Five Live yesterday and he will not be alone in being uncomfortable at the prospect of Anelka's return. Wenger gave him his first-team chance, for which he was rewarded with abuse in print, and there have also been criticisms of Arsenal's vice-chairman David Dein. Bridges have not just been burned but pulled down.

Anelka's future cannot be at Highbury, no matter how vehement the statement of intent yesterday. "It has always been Arsenal Football Club's wish to retain the services of Nicolas Anelka," it read. Really? So why bother negotiating with Lazio and Juventus? He is on his way. It is just a matter of time before one side backs down.

Anelka's argument is that he is unhappy at Arsenal and needs to leave, but an unrealistic price has been put on his head. The club paid Paris St-Germain only pounds 500,000 for his services so turning down an offer of pounds 18m as they did from Lazio last week is just greed.

Counter to that, Arsenal and Lazio agreed a fee of pounds 22m and the deal broke down only because Anelka refused the reduced personal terms. They, it should be stressed, would have earned him around pounds 56,000 a week after tax.

The average British wage earner requires nearly four years to collect that and it must dawn on even the thickest footballer that such avarice is eventually going to have an effect on attendances if it continues its rampant path. Even success-sodden Manchester United supporters are disconcerted to learn Roy Keane's pay demands - and he was revered. Anelka does not enjoy that privilege.

Most galling of all for those who view the game from the stands is that Premiership wages are partly being driven up because of the Bosman ruling, which has given footballers unprecedented privileges. Fears that valuable players can leave clubs for nothing when they reach the end their contracts have embellished terms radically so that a five-year deal of pounds 20,000 a week is not considered abnormal.

If Anelka gets away with forcing Arsenal to sell him, even those gilt- edged contracts will be worth something only while footballers want them to be. It is player-power gone mad and must disaffect the people who ultimately provide the funds.

It would be encouraging to believe that Arsenal are taking their stand with the purest of motives but the suspicion lingers that they would be only too ready to let Anelka go if they can get enough money for him. It was they, after all, who forced up and accepted the pounds 22m price.

If they truly wished to make a gesture they would drop Anelka to the reserves and if he refused to play, his wages would be withdrawn. The player's value would fall but so would his future earning power and even Pierre Van Hooijdonk, a trailblazer in player power last season, succumbed eventually to Nottingham Forest's financial siege.

Meanwhile Arsenal's preparations for a gruelling 10 months are in ruins. "With the season less than two weeks away it is the manager's priority to have the team fully settled and prepared for the forthcoming campaign," their statement read yesterday. Settled? Only an industry as insane as football would even pretend it was.